They started out as punk kids looking to make a small score anyway they could. But the Boys from Brownsville advanced to being the right arm of Murder Incorporated, the most blood-thirsty organization in the history of America.
In the early 1920’s, the Shapiro brothers controlled the illegal activities in the Brownville section of Brooklyn with an iron fist. Meyer was the second oldest and he ran the show. Nothing was beneath Meyer, and he once claimed he owned fifteen brothels in Brownville, with no partners, except his brothers, to share in the proceeds.
“I’m the boss of Brownsville,” Meyer said to anyone who doubted his clout
Irving was the oldest Shapiro brother; not as bright or as tough as Meyer, but still considered the second-in-charge. Willie was the youngest of the three, not too bright and not too tough; not a good combination in the means streets of Brownsville. Willie was basically considered a joke, and lucky to have been born into the Shapiro family.
Besides running broads, the Shapiros cornered the market in Brownsville on illegal booze, and illegal slot machines. To continue to operate untouched, Meyer was smart enough to pay tribute to the bigger mob bosses from the other parts of Brooklyn (Meyer didn’t consider them partners; just the cost of doing business).
“We got everything straightened out our way,” Meyer told his brothers. “As long as we stay in our own backyard, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Then a young street punk named Abe “Kid Twist” Reles began having ideas.
Reles’ father, Abraham, was an Austrian Jew; a humble man who had come to America to seek a better life. Upon his arrival in the “Mountain of Gold,” Abraham Reles supported his family by doing piece work in Manhattan’s Garment Center. Soon, he had saved enough money to start his own business: selling knishes on the streets of Brooklyn with his mobile stand, which Abraham Reles pushed from street corner to street corner, looking for the busiest spot.
Abe Reles was a stocky five-foot-two-inch menace, with the long and powerful hands of a six-footer, and he abhorred his father’s honorable way of life. Reles quit school after the eighth grade, and went to work as a go-fer for the Shapiros. Reles was used for the most menial of jobs; running errands and maybe sometimes keeping an eye on one of the many Shapiro-brothers-owned slot machines. One day, Reles took a bullet to his back while minding a Shapiro slot machine (a mere flesh wound). But this got Reles to thinking.
He told his childhood pal Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein, “Why do we have to take the left-overs?” Reles said. “We should cut a piece. The hell with those guys.”
(It was about this time that Reles took the nickname “Kid Twist,” in honor of a previous New York City Jewish mobster named Max “Kid Twist” Zwerbach, who was killed in front of a Coney Island dance hall in 1908.)
Goldstein was a follower and Reles was his pied piper. Whereas Reles was a tough runt who could kill with the best of them, the hulking Goldstein was the definition of street muscle. Reles snapped his fingers, and Goldstein jumped to attention and did what Reles told him to do. Reles decided that he and Goldstein should go into business for themselves. Nothing big; maybe a few slot machines, and a single house of prostitution for starters.
However, Reles knew the Shapiros had too many men on the streets, and that he needed to make alliances with other street toughs in order to bring his plans to fruition. Reles told Buggsy they should pay a little visit to Happy and the Dasher.
Harry “Happy” Maione and Frank “Dasher” Abbandando were two Italian good-for-nothings who headed the “Ocean Hill Hooligans,” a ruthless street gang who ran the bookmaking and loan-shaking operations in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, which was adjacent to Brownsville. Maione, the elder of the two, was the boss; Abbandando — his second-in-command.
“Dasher” got his nickname because he was been such a dashing baseball player for the Elmira Reformatory, where he had spent most of his youth. In fact, people said the hulking Abbandando could have been a hell-of-a professional baseball player if that had been his desire. The movie-star handsome Dasher also had a slight problem concerning woman; he liked to rape them. Years later, as he awaited his murder trial, Dasher admitted he had participated in dozens of rapes, but he denied one rape in particular.
“That one didn’t count,” Dasher said. “I married her later.”
Dasher’s usual mode of murder was the ice pick because, “It didn’t make too much noise.” But Dasher did admit you had to hold your hand over the victim’s mouth while inserting the icepick, to muffle any screams that might be imminent.
Happy Maione, on the other hand, was short and mean, with beady eyes that seemed to bore a hole into the forehead of the person he was berating. In fact, Happy was called “Happy” because a smile rarely crossed his protruding lips. Once, in order to kill someone who Murder Incorporated said needed to be killed, the slender Maione dressed up like a sexy woman and knocked on the apartment door of his mark (after removing the light bulb in the hallway, of course). The sucker eyed what he thought was an attractive dame in the peephole of his door (for once Maione was smiling; his fake-eye-lashed eyes were fluttering too). As a result, the mark opened the door with the glee of a schoolboy panting for his first date. As soon as the door flung open, Maione and his accomplice filled the victim with several bullet holes, rendering him quite dead.
Abe Reles figured mean thugs like Happy and the Dasher would be swell partners in a takeover of the Brownsville rackets. He approached the Dasher first.
“How about we get together for a little booking?” Reles told the Dasher. “We could handle some betting; you here, and me and Buggsy in Brownsville.”
The Dasher was not too sure this was the right thing to do.
“I don’t know. Me and Happy are okay here,” the Dasher said. “And what about those Shapiros? They won’t like it.”
“Let me worry about those bums,” Reles said. “I’m for Kid Reles from here on in.”
Reles set up a meeting between himself and Buggsy, and Happy and the Dasher. Reles got right to the point.
“Those bums can be taken,” Reles told Happy.
Happy was willing to listen, but was not too eager to join forces.
“What’s on your mind?” Happy said.
“Listen, if we put a mob together we could take everything over,” Reles said.
Happy was still unconvinced. He said, “Look, I’m the boss of Ocean Hill, and I get left alone. Why should I stick my neck out?”
“You throw in with us, and we all move in,” Reles said.
“Where do I fit in if I do?” Happy said.
“Simple,” Reles said. “We take care of the Shapiros; then we take over. Everything goes into the pot. Brownsville, East New York, Ocean Hill – everything. Then we cut down the middle.”
Happy, who secretly hated Reles (and he knew deep inside Reles hated Happy too), told Reles he’d think about it. Happy then approached his mentor Louis Capone about Reles’ proposition. Capone (no relation to Al Capone) was ostensibly a Brooklyn restaurateur, but was in fact a big-time gangster with close ties to Mafioso like Joe “Adonis” Doto, and Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia. Capone was knee-deep in loan-sharking and was also a force in several labor union rackets too.
New York City District Attorney William O’Dwyer told the New York Times that, “Capone had his fingers dipped in every dirty crime committed by the murder syndicate (Murder Incorporated, which we’ll get to later in this book). He was the contact between lesser lights like Reles, Straus, Maione and Goldstein, and bosses like Anastasia and Buchalter (Louie Lepke). But he was not a real head of the mob.”
Happy figured if Capone gave his blessing for a marriage between Happy and Reles, it must be the right thing to do. So Happy laid out Reles’ plan to Capone.
Without hesitation, Capone told Happy. “It sounds real good, Hap.”
Capone even convinced Happy to take in another Capone protégé, Vito Gurino, a five foot-six-inch, 265-pound ox, who could kill as easy as eating a meatball sandwich. This gave the Reles-Maione crew one more valuable assassin in their war against the Shapiros.
So the alliance was made, and Abe Reles’ and Happy Maione’s gangs merged into one formidable group of killers. The Shapiros had a few proficient gunslingers of their own, but with the addition of his new torpedoes, the tide seemed to be turning in Reles’ favor.
Word spread quickly around Brownsville about Reles and Maione’s ambitions, and Meyer Shapiro was not too happy.
“Brownsville belongs to us,” Meyer told his brothers. “Nobody moves in here.”
Reles first order of business was to approach a young punk named Joey Silvers (Silverstein), who was one of the dupes the Shapiros used for their small stuff. Reles paid Silvers, and he paid him well, to tip off Reles whenever they was an opportunity to ambush the Shapiros, and kill all three brothers in one place at one time. Soon, Silvers contacted Reles and told him that all three Shapiros were holed up in a gambling house, and would be leaving shortly, making them naked to a sneak attack.
Not having time to assemble the rest of the crew, Reles and Buggsy brought along a new confederate named George DeFeo. When they arrived at the gambling house, sure enough, the Shapiros’ cars was parked right out front. Reles’ plan was to ice pick the tires, and then nail the Shapiros as they approached their car. But before Reles could even pull out the icepick, the Shapiros opened fire from the safety of the house. Buggsy took a bullet in his nose, and Reles absorbed another one in his stomach. DeFeo was shot dead instantly.
Reles and Buggsy somehow made it to safety, and with the help of a mobbed-up doctor, they slowly licked their wounds and began figuring out how to take out Silvers for his betrayal, along with the Shapiros.
However, Reles had underestimated the depravity of Meyer Shapiro.
One cool autumn night, Meyer Shapiro jumped into his jalopy and scanned the streets of Brownsville, looking to hurt Reles where it hurt most: below the belt. He spotted the pretty young girl while she was window shopping at a local clothing store. The girl was the 18-year-old girlfriend of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles.
Shapiro swerved his car to the curb, and before the girl knew what was happening, she was inside Shapiro’s car, kicking and screaming, but no match for a hardened thug like Shapiro.
Shapiro drove with one hand, and with his free hand he slapped and punched the girl into submission. Then he sped to a secluded area on the outskirts of Brownville and raped Abe Reles’ girlfriend. And if that wasn’t enough, as an added message, Shapiro pummeled the young girl’s face with both fists as if she were a man. When the girl’s face was a grotesque mask of blood, bumps, and bruises, Shapiro opened the passenger door and kicked her out onto the darkened street. She lay there for a while, then was able to drag herself to her feet and make it back to Brownsville. She told Reles what had happened, but her face told everything.
Reles was incensed. Women were off limits.
Reles slowly plotted his revenge.
Reles’ first order of business was to recruit another strong-arm for his crew. He picked a dilly in Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, destined to be the most deranged killer in the history of Brownsville, if not in the entire United States of America. Strauss, who had never been to Pittsburgh (he just liked the name), was called “Pep” by his friends. It was later said Strauss liked committing murder so much (it was reported he killed anywhere from one hundred to five hundred people), he often volunteered for murder contracts because, as District Attorney William O’Dwyer once said, “Just for the lust to kill.”
Strauss was a connoisseur in the art of killing. He used whatever weapon available, but his favorites were the ice pick (like his compatriot Dasher), and a length of rope, which Strauss used to truss up his victims from ankles to throat, and let them linger there as he watched them strangle themselves to death.
Reles later said, “When we got Pep it was like we put on a whole new troupe.”
Reles also recruited a nasty Irishman killer named “Blue Jaw” Magoon, who got his moniker from the fact that he had a five o’clock shadow all day long.
Healed from his wounds, Reles called for a meeting with Happy and both crews.
“Now what happens?” Happy said.
“Well, the Shapiros have to be hit,” Reles said. “We can’t just muscle them out; they got to go. And remember, the first one is Meyer. I got something to square him for.”
The Shapiros knew they were hunted men, but they were lucky that Reles and his crew couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a shotgun at ten paces. For the next year, Reles and his boys stalked the streets of Brownville looking for the Shapiros, but especially Meyer Shapiro. They spotted Meyer eighteen times, and eighteen times their bullets missed their mark. On the nineteenth try, Reles finally wounded Shapiro and two innocent bystanders, but the wound was superficial and Meyer Shapiro escaped, still very much alive.
In early July of 1931, Irving Shapiro convinced Meyer that maybe they should relax and take a ride to Monticello in the Catskill Mountains for the day to visit old pal Jack Siegal, who was on trial for running illegal slot machines.
“You look a little jumpy, Meyer” Irv said. “We can run up and see if we can do anything for Jack. The ride will do you good.”
Since he was tired of being a clay pigeon for Reles’ inept shooting gallery, Meyer agreed to take the day off and breathe in some of that clean country air.
By this time, Abe Reles had his long tentacles throughout Brownville, and his ears firmly to the ground. Minutes after Irv and Meyer Shapiro left town, Reles knew about their country excursion. He quickly assembled his crew and presented his plan.
“There’s a card game at the Democratic Club on Sheffield Avenue tonight,” Reles said. “Those rats are sure to be back for it. They figure to leave Monticello around four-five o’clock. That would get them down here about eight. They’ll eat and be at the club say, ten-eleven o’clock. We’ll be there when they come out.”
Reles was almost exact in his calculations. At about 1 a.m., with Reles and his crew loaded for bear outside, Irv and Meyer Shapiro exited the Democratic Club and headed for their cars. The only problem was, about a dozen other card players exited at the same time, forming a shield around the Shapiro brothers. Before Reles and his crew could get off a shot, the Shapiro brother were safely in their car, and gone.
Reles was steaming mad, but he would not be deterred.
“Quick, over to their house,” Reles told his crew. “They’ll head there.”
Reles and his men sped over to 691 Blake Avenue; the apartment building where the Shapiros lived. The Shapiros’ car was nowhere in sight.
“Good, we beat them here,” Reles said. “Now we go in the hall and wait. Remember, Meyer goes first.”
They snuck into the hallway of the apartment building, removed the over-head light bulb, and waited in the dark. Luckily, no other residents entered the apartment building, and luckily for Meyer Shapiro, he had decided he needed a good rubdown at a nearby bath house.
“I don’t think I’ll go home,” Meyer told Irv in the car. “I’m still jumpy. Drop me off at the Cleveland Baths. I’ll stay there overnight. Maybe it will loosen me up.”
Irv Shapiro did as his brother requested, and after he parked his car near the entrance to his apartment building, Irv entered the darkened vestibule. Reles hesitated, realizing it was Irv and not Meyer Shapiro, whom he wanted badly. But the rest of his crew commenced firing. When the smoke cleared, Irving Shapiro, hit eighteen times, and was splattered dead on the tiled floor.
Scratch Shapiro brother number one.
Nine days later, on July 19, 1931, Meyer Shapiro was strolling down Church Avenue and East 58th Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn, when a dark sedan pulled up next to him and three gunman started firing. Shapiro jumped into his car and tried to escape, with the sedan chasing after him.
Policeman Harold Schreck was driving nearby when he heard gunfire. He sped to where the shots had come from, and he spotted the dark sedan careening straight toward him. Not seeing Shapiro speeding away for his life, Policeman Schreck ordered the driver of the sedan to pull over, but the sedan whizzed past him. Policeman Schreck made a U-turn and gave case, one hand driving, and the other hand firing his gun at the speeding sedan. Schreck soon was joined by another police car occupied by policemen Joe Fleming and Harry Phelps. The two police cars chased the sedan onto the street car tracks. The sedan skidded all over the road, almost tipping over several times, but it always regained its balance. At one point, Policeman Schreck spotted a pistol being flung from the car into an empty lot on Sutter Avenue.
The chase ended at Livonia and Howard Avenues, where the three occupants sprung from the car and tried to flee on foot. The cops jumped out of their two cars and caught all three men before they could get very far. The three men turned out to be Abe Reles, Harry Strauss, and Dasher Abbandando, who had obviously lost his skill at “dashing.” The cops also found a sawed-off shotgun near the sedan (which had been stolen six days earlier at the corner of Pitkin and Stone). It was obvious the hot shotgun had recently been discharged.
The three thugs were arrested, but they refused to talk. The police had information that Reles and his boys were “out to get” Meyer Shapiro, but Shapiro, only slightly wounded, went into hiding. With no dead body, and no one to issue a complaint, Brooklyn District Attorney Geoghan was forced to let Reles and his men go.
That made it twenty times that Shapiro had survived a Reles-led attack.
As a consolation prize, a few days later, Reles and Happy Maione cornered Joey Silvers on a Brownville Street corner, and up close, they blew his head almost completely off his shoulders. But, Meyer Shapiro was still on the loose, with “Deadeye” Reles and his boys in hot pursuit.
Meyer Shapiro decided Brooklyn was too hot for him, so he holed up in Manhattan where he thought he was safe. And he was – for a while.
While in Manhattan, Shapiro, his gang shrinking quickly, figured maybe he could establish himself in Manhattan; a little loansharking, a few slot machines, and maybe even little speakeasy which he could call his own. While attempting to set up shop in Manhattan, Shapiro exposed himself to the underworld element; not a smart thing to do for a man with a bull’s eye on his forehead.
On September, 17, Shapiro stopped in a Manhattan speakeasy for a drink. It’s not clear who spotted him, but soon Kid Twist, Happy, and Buggsy (sounds like three of the seven dwarfs) abducted Shapiro and took him to a Lower East Side cellar located at 7 Manhattan Avenue. The next morning a newsboy found Shapiro’s body in that cellar. He had been shot once behind the left ear at extremely close range, which was verified by deep powder burns where the bullet had entered Shapiro’s skull.
Scratch Shapiro brother number two.
As was his plan, Reles fired the fatal shot himself, and even Reles couldn’t miss with his gun pressed up against Shapiro’s head.
Now all that was left of the Shapiro gang was Willie Shapiro, who had been making noise that he was out to get Reles and his crew, despite the fact that Willie had all but disappeared from the streets of Brooklyn.
Willie Shapiro was considered the weakest of the Shapiro brothers and not a top priority on the Boys from Brownsville’s list of things to do. Reles and Maione were too busy strengthening their organization to put much effort in locating Willie, who by this time had embarked on a career as a prize fighter, and not a very good one at that.
By 1934, Willie Shapiro knew he was dead in the water if he insisted on going after the men who had killed his two brothers. He told his sister Rose, “What’s the use? I can’t make it alone. I’m out of the rackets. I’m going to forget about those bums.”
It turned out that Willie had waited too long to announce his retirement from a life of crime. Although Reles and his boys were not actively seeking Willie, he was still unfinished business, and Reles hated unfinished business
On July, 18, 1934, the day after Willie had spoken to his sister Rose, Vito Gurino met Reles and Strauss on a Brownsville street corner. He told them, “I just spotted Willie going into a place near Herkimer. You know, we’ve got nothing to do now (meaning killing). Why don’t we take him tonight and be done with it?”
Reles and Strauss agreed with Gurino’s assessment, and a few hours later, they abducted Willie from a Brownsville bar and brought him to the basement of a bar and grill on Rockaway Avenue that Gurino owned with Happy Maione and Happy’s brother-in-law Joe Daddonna. In the basement working over Willie were the hulking Gurino, Happy, Strauss, and the Dasher. The beating was most brutal, and when Willie was finally rendered unconscious, Happy put a stop to the festivities; at least for a while.
“This bum is done for,” Happy said.
That was the cue for Strauss to perform his neat rope trick. “Pittsburgh Phil” trussed up Willie like a Thanksgiving turkey; then watched Willie’s dance of death. When Willie stopped struggling and fell limp, signaling he had choked himself to death, the killers stuffed Willie into a laundry bag, to make it easier to transport his body. They flung the laundry bag into the trunk of their car and drove to the sand dunes, in a secluded area in Canarsie Flats. They dumped the laundry bag with Willie onto the sand, and commenced digging.
Shortly after, a Canarsie resident, who was having trouble sleeping, decided to go for a stroll near the sand dunes. Suddenly, he was startled when he thought he detected movement on top of one of the sand dunes. He walked closer and he spotted four men digging in the sand. Suddenly, one of the men lifted his head and spotted the witness. It was Happy and he yelled, “Somebody made us.”
The four men sprinted to a waiting car and sped back to Brownsville, presumably to have a celebratory meal in the bar and grill on Rockaway Avenue.
The witness ran over to where the men had been digging and he spotted the laundry bag in the half-dug hole. He bent down, pulled the top of the bag open, and there was Willie, all trussed up, and not looking to good. The man ran to the local police station, and when the police arrived soon after, Willie Shapiro was indeed dead.
Scratch Shapiro brother number three.
Willie’s body was brought to the Medical Examiner, who discovered sand in Willie’s lungs, meaning Willie had been buried alive.
With Louis Capone as the intermediary to keep peace between Reles and Happy, the Boys from Brownsville thrived. When Albert Anastasia needed someone murdered, he relayed this information to Capone, who gave the contract to Reles and Maione, who then used their stable of killers, including themselves, to do the dirty deeds.
However, the Boys from Brownsville’s main source of income was shylocking (loaning money out at usurious rates), bookmaking (taking illegals bets on sporting events), and floating craps (dice) games. The “floating” craps games took place on street corners, and in vacant lots. The more expensive games were run in car garages, or in any building that was vacant for the night.
The shylocking and bookmaking businesses were run from the backroom of a Brownsville candy store called “Midnight Rose’s.” The store was owned by a cranky old lady named Rose, who was the mother of one of the minor members of the crew, known only as the Dapper. Rose was hassled several times by the law over the type of people who frequented her establishment.
“Why do you let hoodlums hang out in your store?” she was asked by detectives.
“Why don’t the police keep them out?” she said. “Can I help it who comes into my store?”
One she was asked by the police if she knew anyone named “Pittsburgh Phil.”
“Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco… what do I know about them?” she said. “I was never out of Brooklyn in my life. All I know is I got ‘syracuse’ veins. I’m a sick woman.”
It was stated in a 1942 corruption report to New York Governor Herbert Lehman by Special Assistant Attorney John Harlan, that in 1938 alone, more than $400,000 dollars in loans were handled by Midnight Rose herself.
There was also a Brownsville Boys’ “stolen-car department,” run by the younger members, who were basically go-fers for Reles, Happy Maione, Pittsburgh Phil, and the rest of the higher-ups. Teenagers like Dukey Maffetore and Pretty Levine stole cars on a regular basis, as did “Blue Jaw” Magoon, and stolen-car specialist Sholem Bernstein. Some cars were broken down and sold as parts, but most were used as transportation in murder contracts, which we will discuss later in this book under “Murder Incorporated,” a syndicate of killers which tapped the Brownsville Boys as their most efficient torpedoes.
It was around the time of the Willie Shapiro murder that the Brownsville Boys moved up in stature in the National Crime Syndicate, which included Italians Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Joe “Adonis” Doto, and Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Louis Lepke Buchalter, and Buchalter’s partner Jacob “Gurah” Shapiro. Through intermediary Louis Capone, the Brownsville Boys were given numerous murder contracts, which culminated in the Brownsville Boys being given more territories in Brooklyn in which to run their rackets.
There is no doubt that the Brownsville Boys elimination of the Shapiro brothers spurred their transition from strictly small-timers into the major leagues of organized crime.